Everyone makes mistakes—even writers—but that's okay because each mistake is a great learning opportunity. The Writer's Digest team has witnessed many mistakes over the years, so we started this series to help identify them early in the process. Note: The mistakes in this series aren't focused on grammar rules, though we offer help in that area as well.
Rather, we're looking at bigger picture mistakes and mishaps, including the error of using too much exposition, neglecting research, or researching too much. This week's writing mistake writers make is misusing dialogue tags.
Writing Mistakes Writers Make: Giving Up
It’s no secret that when you embark on the journey that is writing, the odds of publication or representation by an agent are not in your favor. Publishing houses and literary journals receive far more submissions than they can publish; agents receive hundreds of queries every day. It’s enough to make any person with common sense decide that writing maybe isn’t worth it in the first place. They can find a hobby that involves far less heartache.
But that’s a big mistake that many would-be successful writers make. Perhaps the biggest skill a writer can learn to aid their career is to learn to keep going in the face of rejection. A writer who gives up as soon as it gets hard is a writer who will never see their words be published.
Mistake Fix: Learn Perseverance
I’ve interviewed many debut authors over the three years that I’ve written the Breaking In column of WD, and nearly every author tells WD readers the same thing: Just don’t give up. I’ve gathered some of the best tips on perseverance from the column to show that it is possible to keep going even when it seems tough.
- Martine Fournier Watson sent 108 cold queries to agents for her debut novel The Dream Peddler before she found her agent, Bridget Smith of JABerwocky Literary Agency. Had she given up before that lucky query #109, she would have never signed with her agent and The Dream Peddler may not have reached bookstore shelves.
- Author of the award-winning story collection Home Remedies Xuan Juliana Wang said she broke in by sheer effort. “I rented a studio warehouse with my friends that was so far from the subway I knew when I went, I would stay all day and I had to write something,” she said in her 2019 interview. “For a year, nothing seemed to happen. I kept getting rejected by magazines, but I thought I could at least make my writing better. Publishing wasn’t something I could control. But this was something I could.”
- Don’t give up just because a book is taking longer to write than expected. It took David Crow, author of The Pale-Faced Lie, over 10 years to write his true crime memoir, including many stops and rewrites over the years. “I nearly gave up a number of times, but a burning desire to share my story kept me going,” he said.
- Keah Brown’s journey of self-love led her to write her memoir-in-essays The Pretty One. After publishing articles and essays in Teen Vogue, Marie Claire, Allure, Essence, Harper’s Bazaar, Catapult, and more, multiple agents reached out to her offering representation. “I refused to give up, even after every rejection,” she said. “I believed in the work more than I did myself. I was determined for my work to count for something and help me get here.”
- Though disheartening, not every rejection is the same and some offer encouragement or feedback. Author of the novel Echoed in My Bones Lisa A. Sturm said, “I kept polishing my manuscript and continued to query, even after many rejections. I saved the supportive responses and reread them when I felt discouraged.”
- Rena Barron queried several manuscripts over 10 years—including an adult thriller, an adult dystopian, and a YA sci-fi—before she landed an agent for her YA fantasy Kingdom of Souls in 2017. She wrote the book inspired by voodoo magic in 2013 but shelved the manuscript when she didn’t land representation, picking up the story again in 2017 and re-writing the manuscript from scratch in five weeks. “I wasn’t ready to tell this story back in 2013,” she said. “I needed more practice and to grow as a writer. There are always going to be those moments that you’ll need to improve your craft, and we might as well embrace them.”
- “During the decade I spent honing my craft, I had moments where I felt like giving up,” said Abi Daré, author of the Read With Jenna Book Club pick The Girl With the Louding Voice. “Now, I realize every word I wrote and re-wrote as I waited for an opportunity contributed to making me a better writer. I should have been kinder to myself in the process.”
- Author of the historical fantasy A Witch in Time Constance Sayers said, “The best thing you can do if you hit an obstacle with one book is write another book because it makes the first one less ‘precious.’ I think that is something I heard Joanna Penn [of The Creative Penn blog] say.” Penn’s advice worked for Sayers—she began writing A Witch in Time after her first novel failed to sell. When early readers of the new novel said they stayed up all night to finish the book, Sayers knew she had something good.
- After working on her first novel The Talking Drum during her MFA program and another six years revising and shopping her manuscript to agents who all ultimately turned the book down, author Lisa Braxton didn’t see the rejections as a sign to stop. Instead, she came to the conclusion that she needed to re-write the book with the help of a writing consultant. After her rewrite, The Talking Drum was accepted for publication by Inanna Publications.
- Ramiza Shamoun Koya returned to her idea for the novel The Royal Abduls seven years after she’d originally began the story. “I changed the structure and a key plot element and found its heart,” she said. After being rejected by agents who said they couldn’t relate to the main character, Koya submitted her manuscript to small publishers and found a home with Portland’s Forest Avenue Press. “I have been lucky in that the content of my book has remained relevant,” Koya said. “I had faith that I had something to say in this work.”
- “I joke that I was only able to get published by being too stubborn and foolish to give up,” said A Good Family author A.H. Kim. “I know many talented writers who haven’t been published because they find the process discouraging.” She queried her agent Kirby Kim of Janklow & Nesbit for the domestic thriller after he sent her a kind and encouraging rejection for the YA novel she had been querying years earlier.
- “Getting published seems to be a secret sauce of personal taste, profitability, timing, talent, perseverance, and luck,” said Eddy Boudel Tan about his debut novel After Elias. “There’s no magic recipe, but it comes down to finding the right people who believe in your work.” His second book with Dundurn Press, The Rebellious Tide, releases this summer.
- The Kindest Lie author Nancy Johnson confessed to Ann Patchett at a writing conference that she was in a bout of creative paralysis, starting new books and writing 25 pages to gain acceptance into writing workshops, but failing to write any additional pages upon returning home. “She gave me this look that was a blend of mortification and pity,” Johnson said. Her February 2021 literary debut was named a most anticipated book by dozens of publications “If our paths ever cross again, I want Ann Patchett to know I finally wrote 336 pages of a novel I’m proud of.”
- Ciannon Smart had written YA dystopias before writing her debut YA fantasy Witches Steeped in Gold. “Witches wasn’t the first book I wrote, but it was the best at the time,” she said. “To get there, I read craft books, sought advice from those more experienced than me via Pitch Wars, participated in agent one-to-ones, ventured into the Twitter hellscape to find critique partners and beta readers. I didn’t give up.”
- While her first manuscript helped her sign with an agent, Brandie June was still met with many rejections from publishers. The same day she signed with her agent for the first book, she hired an editor to work on her with her second book Gold Spun. The Rumpelstiltskin retelling was published by CamCat Books in June 2021. “Even when my books were rejected (especially when they were rejected), I would keep working on my next book,” she said. “There were times I wondered if I’d ever break in, but I would remind myself that if my first book didn’t sell, maybe my second or third would. The more I wrote, the better writer I became.”